Many keyboardists struggle to keep their computers afloat in the sea of multi-gigabyte sample libraries; with each new library promising to deliver finer sound and greater piano realism.
But all is not lost! We can thank God and the good folks at 4Front Technologies for finally making the dream a reality. For the gracious price of only £121.55, or $180 (USD), 4Front’s suite of five modelled pianos is nothing shy of spectacular and splendorous. Furthermore, True Pianos is ‘truly’ multi-platform in that it is available for Windows PC (32 bit & 64 bit), Mac (Intel & PPC), Receptor, and vMachine!
I always like to find that “something” about a product that causes it stand out; something that puts it ahead of the other race horses, even if only by a nose. In this case, that “something special” is the very conservative system requirements and how ‘lite’ this beautiful-sounding piano suite is on CPU and memory. Now, dear reader, before you glance up at the “back” button thinking that “light on CPU” means “light on sound-quality”, rest assured that nothing could be further from the truth.
When 4Front Technologies released True Pianos in January of 2007, it became immediately obvious to the digital-instrument community that this software was “something different”. True Pianos is a highly evolved, digital symbiotic-relationship of sampling, synthesis and physical modelling. Collectively, these attributes work synergistically to reproduce incredible piano realism whilst demanding very little memory and processing power. (Comparatively speaking, that is.) An obvious benefit of 4Front’s technology is the fact that the sound is generated programmatically ‘on the fly’, eliminating disk streaming and hard drive caching.
As a general statement, True Pianos can certainly be considered more than able to replace most nearly any large, hard drive-taxing piano sample library. 4Front’s lead programmer, George Yohng, is highly respected among his peers for spear-heading and developing the audio-engine that powers the “Vienna Symphonic Library”. The specialized sampling technology evidenced in True Pianos is the brain child of Mr. Roel de Wit.
I pointedly asked 4Front Technologies some questions about their virtual piano development. Mr. George Yohng and Mr. Roel de Wit replied to my queries with more detail than I was expecting. Most of the information was submitted in confidence, but I’d like to pass on some of the scoop that may be freely shared.
“For each TruePianos module we create what I (Roel) call a footprint as a base to start working from, which through mathematically analysis is derived from actual samples. In case of the Amber module we rented a studio with a certain model of grand piano in it and did a sampling session to obtain the raw material we needed to create the footprint required for starting work on the creation of this module. The Amber module has some characteristics of the original sampled piano but doesn't sound like the original instrument if you would do a direct comparison.”
“Two and a half years later we released the Atlantis module which we consider our best publicly released module to date and also a preview of the long overdue TP v2.0 technology which from a computational point of view is approximately 10x more complex than any previously released module. The Atlantis module sounds very different from the Amber module but fact is that the footprint of both modules is generated from the very same sampling session. The difference in sound is due to the use of newer and more refined techniques we have developed for what will become TruePianos v2.0.”
How wonderful to not be inundated with rigorous, time-demanding installation routines. True Pianos’ individual components were all installed and playable within 5 minutes on the 6 year old dual core laptop that I use for reviewing purposes. The installers are each downloadable from the secure customer-area on the 4Front web site. Customers receive login credentials via email once payment has been remitted. If you are one of those chappies who is in the habit of downloading large, multi-gig sample libraries, this will seem like child’s play to you. The whole blessed lot of installers requires just 390 MB (one installer for the core engine, plus the five piano modules).
Product authorization finalizes the quick and painless installation process. Simply type or ‘paste’ the authorization details that you received at time of purchase. The user can load up the instrument on a midi track in his/her DAW, or alternatively, launch True Pianos as a fully self-contained standalone application. Tap the conductor’s sheet-stand; ladies and gentlemen, it’s Piano time!
Regarding 4Front’s personalized licensing model, I really, really wish that all developers would sit up and take notice. Some anti-piracy and software-licensing mechanisms are wearisome and a real pain-in-the-noodle. Dongles are inconvenient and can be costly to replace. If you’re an iLok user, it will cost $100 to restore your licenses should your dongle get lost, stolen or fail. You can choose to proactively pay iLok.com $30+ a year for their “Zero Downtime” service (excluding the $50 for a new dongle). If a company folds or stops production, then challenge/response protections will fail. If the user has a serious computer failure or migrates to a new system, then licensing can be cumbersome, difficult and may ever require “arm wresting” with the developer or company to obtain new license codes. It is this reviewer’s opinion that companies such as 4Front, SKnote, ToneBoosters, PSP Audioware, and others of their ilk, provide the BEST customer experience.
Clicking anywhere along the top bar, or either side of the interface, allows the user to choose between the “Basic” and “Advanced” screens. The plug-in’s interface fits easily on modern monitors; maybe even ‘too easily’. The GUI measures off at 796px wide by 362px high. On a current high-res monitor, the beauty of this attractive GUI may possibly get overlooked; it would be nice if the interface came with a resizing option.
When True Pianos first debuted a few years ago, this interface was considered beautiful, and it introduced a new standard of VSTi GUI excellence. For the record, I am still very partial to it. The interface is attractive, functional, and most importantly, it’s blisteringly quick. No lags, no pauses. I suspect that the visual components of this ‘Speedy Gonzalez of pianos’ have been optimized as tightly as the underlying sound engine.
Along the bottom of the “Basic” interface are four menu options; Module, Presets, Options and About. The ‘Module’ menu displays the list of five piano modules; the ‘Presets’ menu contains the list of factory presets per module. This list changes dynamically depending on the selected module. The ‘Options’ menu opens an easy-to-navigate window containing only three checkboxes and a vertical, keyboard-dynamics slider. These allow the user to select an increased polyphony, multi-core CPU option, sympathetic resonance and keyboard dynamics.
It is important to note that the increased polyphony option will increase the load on your system. This is not an issue likely to be realized using newer computers. Keeping the checkbox cleared still retains excellent sound quality, but eases the strain on older or underpowered systems. The keyboard dynamics slider allows the player to adjust the midi-velocity to best match the player’s midi keyboard and his/her playing style.
The “Advanced” screen is equally as well designed. Subtle, elegant 3D elements are tastefully placed on this easy-to-read screen. All control labels are clearly seen in clean, white, anti-aliased typeface. The controls respond very smoothly to mouse movements and “shift-click & drag” provides very fine, granular parameter changes.
Double-clicking any control automatically resets the control back to its zero or default values. The numeric value of each control is displayed in the control’s accompanying “Value Box”. The user may simply click on any of these and key in a value using the numeric keypad on your computer keyboard.
Whenever a piano module is selected, a brief description of that module is displayed in the description box. The various modules are described by 4Front as follows:
Atlantis: True Pianos 2.0 technology preview. By my estimation, this is the ‘richest’ sounding module contained in the collection. It also is the most CPU intensive module. 4Front do not make any claims or innuendos that any of their modules are “modelled” after any particular piano model; however, this one sounds convincingly like a Steinway Model D to my ears. I own three different “Steinway” sample libraries, so I’ve become quite keen in recognizing the unmistakable warmth and presence of a Steinway. Then again, maybe it sounds like a Bösendorfer . . . *grin. At any rate, the Atlantis module deeply satisfies with it’s “bouncing”, robust lower register, its full-bodied mids, and the lovely clear, brilliant top end.
Sapphire: A dynamic piano module with a versatile stereo sound. Sapphire is a sparkling, clean piano module with a high dynamic range and versatile stereo sound. Good for orchestral and subtle pieces. Some beta-testers dubbed it the 'ice-piano'.
Emerald: A roomy piano with lots of ambience and a ‘strict’ sound. Its distinct character helps to shape the mood of your musical piece.
Diamond: This is a clean versatile piano with a neutral yet brilliant character. Diamond could perhaps be considered the most versatile piano in the collection. I found it to be very at home with more jazz-like arrangements or mellower compositions. However, it can also be made quite “alive” and boisterous to sing out nicely in a busy pop or blues mix.
Amber: This is more or less the default module. 4Front describes this piano as a grand piano with wide dynamics and rich timbre. I completely concur. Amber can sit confidently in a busy rock mix or it can masterfully reproduce the graceful tones of a classical, recital hall grand.
The “Velocity Floor” slider allows you to “bring out” the mellower piano sound of playing a piano softly, at much higher velocity levels as normally would be the case. It can be used to make presets darker as well as to compensate for not-so-perfect MIDI keyboards that don’t let you play well at lower velocities. I have a Roland E-50 which is great for synth and organ playing.
Since the E-50 is only a touch-sensitive controller and does not have weighted hammer action, it feels much too “elastic” to be a good piano controller. I found that setting the “Velocity Floor” to a value of -37 dB worked absolute wonders on my piano tracks.
The “Keyboard Dynamics” slider seen here is the same parameter as we already saw on the “Basic” screen. To nutshell, it affects the velocity sensitivity curve, character and many other aspects of the way that True Pianos’ modules will respond and sound.
A “Release” slider is provided to accord user-preference over the length of note decay when a key is released on the midi keyboard, while the sustain pedal is up.
Collectively, these advanced parameters allow the player to achieve tremendous acoustic piano realism. True Pianos is capable of reproducing startling, “True” piano sound – aka “True Pianos”.
To complete the options on the “Advanced” interface, there is a pair of sliders to allow ‘fine tuning’, and a pair of Output Level sliders. The default pitch of True Pianos is A-440, but the pair of Pitch/Tuning sliders are greatly effective for ‘on the fly’ tuning adjustments. This is especially handy when the pianist is performing with other acoustic instruments that may not be perfectly tuned to standard A-440 tuning. The left slider changes the tuning frequency in 1 Hz steps, while the right slider works in 0.01 Hz steps (cents). The volume sliders . . . adjust the output levels.
Hmmm, does that last line read redundantly to you? I haven’t infused much witticism into this article; wut, with True Pianos bein’ so spiffy, n’ classy, n’ all.
4Front have put concerted, intelligent programming effort into the development of True Piano’s core engine itself, as well as the accompanying piano modules. They have accomplished a very great feat, in this reviewer’s professional opinion. That said, what they have deliberately eschewed away from, is an attempt to include a bevy of DSP effects; with the exception of their very adequate and usable, built-in reverb/room algorithm. Since this piano suite requires such conservative processing and memory amounts, 4Front feel that specialized processing is best left to 3rd party plug-ins. There is plenty of computer “headroom” available for 3rd party effects-processing while using True Pianos.
Since True Pianos is a synergistic hybrid of three distinct technologies, it does not suffer from any type of velocity switching failings. It is by far, the most dynamic virtual piano I have played, to date. As I mentioned earlier, the impressive-sounding PianoTeq 4 (Standard) will also be bench-tested and reviewed here on Reviewer’s Revival. Notwithstanding, to this point in time, True Pianos is the Reviewer’s Revival reigning monarch of virtual-piano dynamics and expression.
The “Sympathetic Response” is subtle, but having it enabled in the Options Panel does contribute increased realism to the overall sound.
As an umbrella statement, the wide-ranging sound quality of True Pianos is excellent. This collection of virtual pianos produces realistic sounds that run the full gamut of piano tone spectrum. I’d go so far as to say that the “Atlantis” module’s sound quality is ‘exquisite’. This module reproduces a powerful, imperial sound quality reminiscent of “Steinway Model D” or “Bösendorfer 290” Grands.
True Pianos is highly responsive and dynamic. Of all the virtual pianos I have ever used, I can honestly report that this delectable collection of finely-crafted, modelled pianos is one of “the most dynamic” I've had the pleasure to experience. Great expression and subtleties of tone are painstakingly coded into this small, unpretentious piano suite.
Each of the five modules is pleasingly spacious and dynamic across the stereo field. Both the “Amber” and “Atlantis” modules exhibit the greater degrees of dynamic stereo width. The “Sapphire” module is also very dynamic and wide; perhaps it is the ‘widest’ of the lot. The “Emerald” and “Diamond” modules seem to be the easiest to place and pan in a mix.
I would welcome a “width” control as a new feature to be implemented in a future release of True Pianos. For solo piano performance, or when playing in a small combo setting, the dynamic stereo width is absolutely wonderful. Sometimes, however, it is befitting to ‘narrow’ an instrument so that it can be placed in a mix a little easier. In the meantime, there are 3rd party plug-ins that can adjust the width of a stereo instrument, such as: SKnote, XTrim; DDMF, StereooeretS; and SleepyTimeRecords, StereoChannel.
4Front’s built-in reverb module is very good – better than I was expecting from a ‘bundled’ ambience effect. It’s quite deep, and didn't seem to me to be profusely ‘wide’. This built-in reverb is a single algorithm, but it is somewhat of a “Goldilocks”. It’s just right. Please don’t think this is a negative. On the contrary, the reverb sounds as good as many 3rd party plug-ins costing $100 or greater. It has a very pleasant, subtle modulation that greatly enhances piano sounds. Great job, 4Front! Five stars.
True Pianos generally places very conservative demands on both CPU and RAM. The tightly-optimized C++ coding was written by an elite programmer who draws from many years of specialized VSTi programming experience. One quirk that I have noticed about this stellar performer is that the CPU consumption is mildly increased while the “Basic” interface is visible. This CPU increase is not observed while the plug-in is hidden or when the “Advanced” screen is visible. Perhaps this has to do with the auto-refreshing of GUI code with how the graphical elements are drawn on the screen. This is a very minor niggle, and is probably not even discernible on a modern, multi-core computer.
In the zealous, competitive market of multi-gigabyte sample libraries, a powerful, lightweight instrument of such quality is to be cherished and well-favored. True Pianos has a finesse and class about it that is befitting a white-tie gala, while still being able to comfortably fit in with a raucous “Little Richard” or “Jerry Lee” rock n’ roll bash-a-thon.
This select, finely-crafted collection of five, distinct piano modules is very graciously-priced. Many single-instrument sample libraries cost as much, and perhaps more. True Pianos is a good deal.
The creators and developers of True Pianos are also the product support team. In other words, each customer is treated with personal care and respect. My interaction with Mr. de Wit and Mr. Yohng has been a very amiable and pleasant experience. These gentlemen have been congenial and courteous while remaining professional and “on top of it.”
By the way, TruePianos is discounted 50% for church ministers/worship leaders, also for teachers, students, medical personnel and non-profit good-will workers.
- Highly dynamic and expressive!
- Wide range of piano sounds.
- Light on system resources, requiring little hard drive space.
- Well-designed, intuitive 3D interface.
- Good selection of usable presets.
- Easy to navigate and smooth controls.
- Good quality built-in reverb.
- Well-reputed developer and abundant online help.
- Polite, professional product support.
- Highly Optimized code resulting in conservative CPU requirements.
- Exceptional reliability.
- No dongles, call/response challenges, nor invasive piracy protection overhead.
- Multi-platform MAC , PC, vMachine and Receptor.
- Not ‘quite’ as authentic-sounding as a 15GB sample library . . . isn't it? – oh, but it doesn't consume 15GB of hard drive space. *Grin.
Visit the True Pianos website.
TruePianos Web Site
Brother Charles is a freelance writer, Gospel music artist and minister. Charles had been a professional touring musician during the nineties; working primarily as a lead guitarist in the Canadian country music industry. Brother Charles is also involved with music production and quality home recording.
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